What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books
– Gustave Flaubert
So little read; so much to read. Of blurbing many books there is no end, and selling your last shirt for yet another ‘must-read’ Christian paperback is a weariness of the flesh.
I read a lot. It’s an occupational hazard that feeds on a childhood compulsion: books, articles, dictionaries, blogs, cereal packets, toothpaste tubes—anything that puts text before my eyes. So when someone asked me recently for tips on how to read more, I had opinions. These I now share with you, beloved reader, in the form of some Theses On (Not) Reading More.
(Please note: in what follows, I’m assuming that you’re reading the Bible a lot. If that’s not a fair assumption, please stop reading this immediately—you have something far more important still to do.)
Thesis 1. Read less, read better
1.1 Read less—much less news, much-much less social media, and far fewer blogs. Cull ephemera. The best blogs are almost never as good as actual articles and books. (The Pastors’ Academy blog is, obviously, the one exception: ‘Indispensable for every thinking Christian’ –Herman Bavinck.)
1.2 Read better: don’t waste time on mediocre reading matter.
1.2.1 Some advice from two well-read master-readers—Oliver O’Donovan: ‘Few but good’; John Webster: ‘Life is too short for secondary literature’.
1.3 Read better: with greater attention and focus, and with intentional speed and superficiality where appropriate.
1.4 Make time to read. You’ll rarely ‘find’ time to read. But it’s amazing how much you can read if you schedule 20 or 30 minutes every day, and if you read less and read better.
1.5 Make clear distinctions in your mind. Why am I reading this? It’s fine to read ephemera. Just make sure they don’t take the place of serious reading. On the other hand, it would be sad only to read serious things in a serious way. Read for fun, read on a whim.
1.6 Just because everyone else is raving about a particular book doesn’t mean it’s worth your time. Even if it’s about something you might find interesting.
1.6.1 Even if it might be worth your time, it might not be worth your time now. Authors and publishers need to promote books and get early purchases. Fair enough. But why should you feel compelled to buy or read a book just because it’s only just been published and it’s what everyone else is talking about? It’s often wise to wait a year or two; it saves time and money.
Thesis 2. Learn to read quickly
2.1 Most books (unless reading for pleasure) can safely be read quickly. Get the gist, don’t worry about the details.
2.2 In fact, most books can safely be given to charity shops unopened.
2.3 Books are great servants and bad masters. Don’t feel the need to read cover to cover. Sunk costs are a bad reason to finish a book.
2.4 Learn how to gut a book, and make a habit of it.1
Thesis 3. Learn to read slowly
3.1 Mastering the art of slow, reflective, reading is far more important than learning how to read quickly.
3.2 The best books need slow, repeated, readings. These are the ones that should get most of our time, and our best available time.
(3.3 There may have been some enduringly great books published in 2021, but how on earth would you or I know?)
3.4 I reckon I’ve only read a great book when I’ve read it multiple times. I’ve read very few books indeed, but I’m learning a lot in the process.
Thesis 4. Reading serves thinking
4.1 So read less! Leave space to stare out of the window with no books to hand; let your mind wander; noodle with pen and paper.
4.2 It takes a long time—weeks, months, years—for a new idea, question, or way of thinking, to become embedded in my mind. It takes longer yet—years, decades—for it to become so deeply embedded in my life that I grow in wisdom.
4.3 It really helps to take notes as you read. But how you take (and file) your notes matters.
4.4 Notes shouldn’t simply record the content of what you’ve read; rather, notes should capture—and form part of—your thinking process.
4.5 When you record your notes, you don’t need a filing system; you need a retrieval system. Otherwise, your notes are just ‘a graveyard of thoughts’ (Sönke Ahrens).
Thesis 5. Reading is for love of God and love of neighbour.
5.1 Those who don’t like reading need to remember this. Those of us who love to read need to remember it more.
5.2 For pastors, at least some of our reading directly serves preaching/teaching/writing.
5.3 So it’s less important how much we’ve read, and far more important how much of our reading has become a deep part of our thoughts and lives (see 4.2). The aim is that the fruit of our reading is available for thought and prayer and worship and service.
1 2.4 cont. How to gut a book.
2.4.1 Read the blurb and the contents page. In a sentence, what’s the book about? And what do you want to get from it?
2.4.2 Read the preface (quickly) and introduction (more carefully). Pay particular attention if the author outlines each chapter.
2.4.3 Read the conclusion
(2.4.4 Spend a couple of minutes flipping through the index: what are the topics that interest you?)
2.4.5 In a sentence or two, in your own words, what’s the main thesis of the book?
2.4.6 Now ask: is it worth it for you to spend any more time with this book? Do you need to read the whole book, or just one or two chapters/sections?
2.4.7 If it’s not worth your time at this stage, give it away, take it to a charity shop, or bin it.
2.4.8 If it is worth your time, read the first and last/summary paragraph of each chapter. Maybe also read the first (and last) sentence of all the other paragraphs.
2.4.9 Now you’re in a good position to decide: Can I stop reading now, and shelve the book? Do I want to read it all? At what speed? Or do I just want/need to read one or two chapters in more depth?